Making the ultimate sacrifice of their bodies, four employees of the Japanese toilet company Toto Kiki Ltd., the forerunner of Toto Ltd., put themselves on the line in a desperate bid 30 years ago to save their company.
That included being the guinea pigs as they developed a toilet with a warm-washing feature that sprayed a user's buttocks with water and dried it with warm air.
"I felt soreness and prickliness in my buttocks because I had to have it sprayed with warm water and then blown with warm air over and over," recalled Masami Iida, 57, who was in charge of developing the nozzle and other parts.
The team members, all in their 20s, knew what was at stake.
Ina Seito Co., now part of Lixil Corp. under the brand of Inax, had started production and distribution of the nation's first toilet model with a washing feature. But the product did not become widespread enough because Western-style toilets had yet to be widely accepted at home due to a lack of sewage infrastructure.
But the market was beginning to develop.
Sales of Western-style toilets accounted for about 20 percent of all toilet models in 1955 and surpassed that of Japanese-style products by 1977. Sewage coverage was 16 percent in 1970, but the figure rapidly rose to 30 percent in 1980.
However, with the housing boom spurred by the economic growth slowing, sales of Toto's Western-style toilets were circling the drain. The Toto "team" was tasked with saving their company before it was flushed to the bowels of history forever.
One idea was to remake toilet seats with the bidet feature into models intended for Japanese users. The company had been producing them on a small scale under technology license from a U.S. company.
But toilet seats with a warm-water washing feature were not widely known even in the company. The act of having one's buttocks sprayed with warm water was considered weird.
"It was a product we had never even used," said Hiroshi Tanaka, 57, who was in charge of developing the valve for the product. "We always told each other that we weren't sure if it could really be marketable."
Still, the Toto team continued to work late into the night almost daily on perfecting the toilet technology for the Japanese market.
To direct the water spray to the right spot, they needed to know the exact position of the anus when the user sits on the seat. The members solicited volunteers from the company to collect data.
They tried and tested prototypes by themselves.
With the temperature of the laboratory set to 0, 15 and 30 degrees, the team members conducted research to determine the appropriate temperature setting, spray angle, safety requirements and other factors. While doing so, they gradually increased the water temperature from cold to 49 degrees.
They discovered that the right spraying angle of warm water from the nozzle was 43 degrees from horizontal, with the appropriate temperature set at 38 degrees.
The first model was released in June 1980. However, the company faced a wave of complaints from customers who said that the hot water didn't come out and cited other malfunctions. Many returned the units.
Toto also received many reports of accidents from purchasers. Some said their children accidentally touched the nozzle and splashed water all over the place.
But the popularity skyrocketed two years later with a TV commercial starring actress Jun Togawa. It attracted intense attention with the catchy phrase, "Buttocks, too, want to be washed."
The new Toto toilet turned into a hot seller, selling more than 100,000 units a year. Washlet, under which the product was sold, became a synonym for toilets with similar functions.
"With the introduction of Washlet models, the toilet, which had been referred to as 'gofujo' (the unclean), became a comfortable, relaxing spot," said Junichi Hirata, the 78-year-old president of the Japan Toilet Association. "Toilets had been located in the back of the hallway or next to the front door, but they began to be placed next to the sleeping room or living room."
Eventually, toilet seats with water spray feature made their foray into public spaces.
Taiji Tonaka, the 66-year-old owner of French restaurant Mikawaya in Tokyo's posh Ginza district, installed a Washlet unit in his restaurant around 1986 ahead of other eateries in the area.
Tonaka said he was surprised when he used it for the first time because it was so "tickling."
"But soon, I couldn't go without it. The atmosphere of the toilet is important in the service sector. With the odor gone, it also became comfortable," Tonaka added.
In 1987, Matsuya Ginza became the first store in the department store industry to introduce Washlet toilets. A carpet-floored powder room and a dressing room were also added to ladies' rooms.
The hi-tech toilets were also introduced in green cars of the Tohoku Shinkansen Line in 2001.
However, toilet seats with water spraying feature have yet to become widely used in the United States and Europe.
Differences in lifestyle and culture are cited as reasons.
But Hisao Shimizu, 57, a curator at the Folk Museum of Tokyo's Ota Ward who is familiar with the world's toilet culture, offers a unique analysis.
"Because Europeans and North Americans are meat eaters, their stool tends to be more dry and solid. For that reason, it may be possible that they wouldn't really feel the need to wash it with water."
In January this year, Toto said it has sold more than 30 million Washlet units across the globe. The products are locked in a fierce competition with similar toilet seats produced by Lixil, Panasonic Corp. and other rivals.
According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, 70.9 percent of Japanese households use the Washlet or similar toilet seats as of March this year.
Currently, Japanese makers are also competing with each other to produce water-saving toilets.
In and after 1970, most toilets used about 13 liters of water to clean the bowl. But now, many of them use 6 or less liters per flush, with more recent models using only 4 liters.
- « Prev
- Next »